Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan’s appointments diary is filled with meetings with companies and organisations, among other things.
But, apparently, very few of those meetings count as lobbying under new legislation designed to bring more transparency to who is influencing our public officials. Therefore, very few of them are listed in returns filed by lobbyists about their activities.
Here’s how we found out: we got a copy of Keegan’s appointments diary for the second half of 2015 under the Freedom of Information Act.
It showed that, as you would expect, he is really, really busy.
Highlights included Ireland’s football match against Bosnia, the French opera and a street-lighting workshop. Drawbacks included endless meetings with Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly.
We compared Keegan’s diary against the companies and organisations who have registered as lobbying him between September and December 2015.
Most of the meetings he had with companies and organisations were not logged on the lobbying register. (But just because people from organisations met with Keegan, or scheduled meetings with Keegan, doesn’t necessarily mean that they lobbied him.)
Some of the meetings that caught our eye were with Panda, JCDecaux, Deloitte, the DCU Governing Authority, Arup, Big Belly Smart Bins, Ann O’Dea of Inspirefest, the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland, SSE Airtricity and Diageo.
Representatives of three of those organisations responded to our queries before we published this article: the company behind Big Belly bins, Deloitte and Diageo. And all three said they had not lobbied the chief executive.
Don Coughlan managing director of Kyron Street Limited, which distributes Big Belly bins, met with Keegan to inform him and his team of how the product is working for Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council.
“I am aware of the lobbying act,” Coughlan said, “and I know that this meeting does not fall within the description of lobbying.”
Deloitte said its meetings with Keegan didn’t consist of lobbying, and that it doesn’t comment on client matters.
Diageo, meanwhile, said their country director, Oliver Loomes, and director of supply, Colin O’Brien, met with Keegan back in December. A spokesperson for the company said the two directors are relatively new and met with him to introduce themselves and provide an overview of Diageo’s operations in Dublin.
“Diageo, as a matter of course, made the lobbying regulator aware of the meeting and its content. Following engagement with the regulator, we were advised the meeting did not fall within the scope of the act, as no lobbying activity was carried out, and therefore did not need to appear on our lobbying returns,” she said.
So What Counts as Lobbying?
There are rules as to what counts as lobbying.
Potential lobbyists include: an employer with more than 10 employees, a representative body with at least one employee communicating on behalf of members, an advocacy body with at least one employee paid to take up particular issues, a professional lobbyist, or somebody communicating about the development or zoning of land.
If any of those folks approach officials who fall under the act – known as “designated public officials” – to talk about changes in public policy or public programmes, changes in laws, or the awarding of contracts or grants that involve public funds, then that’s lobbying.
Sherry Perreault, head of lobbying regulation, says anyone who falls within the scope of the lobbying act and who communicates with a designated public official on a relevant matter is lobbying. But she also stresses: “Not all communications are lobbying.”
With the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 only coming into effect last September, and the first registrations being submitted at the end of January, she says it’s still new to everyone.
So what are the consequences of lobbying, but not registering? Right now, there are none. The focus for this year is compliance, guidance and education, says Perreault.
“We’re going through all of the registrations and we are identifying where there may be mistakes or where we may have questions, because the information mightn’t be clear to us. We’ll get back to the organisation to make sure we have everything,” she says.
This will help lobbyists get used to the new process before penalties come in. As for investigation and enforcement, they feature in the legislation but won’t come into effect until it is a year old.
It is up to the minister for public expenditure and reform to commence this part of the legislation, says Perreault. The minister needs to give the Standards in Public Office Commission the authority to levy fixed payment notices if somebody misses their deadline for registering, and to investigate and prosecute any potential offences.
Penalties will range from fines to two years’ imprisonment.
Who Has Actually Lobbied the Chief Executive?
So far only a handful of organisations are listed on the register having lobbied Owen Keegan.
These include the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, which has practically lobbied the whole council, as well as the Peter McVerry Trust, Ecocem Ireland, IBEC, the O Cualann Cohousing Alliance, Temple Media Ltd, the Aviva Stadium and Future Analytics Consulting Ltd.
Just two meetings that popped up in Keegan’s diary were listed on the register.
One was with representatives from the FAI, the Aviva Stadium and the IRFU in November. They discussed services around the stadium, and request that these be enhanced.
Also, Future Analytics Consulting Ltd lobbied Keegan at a couple of meetings on behalf of the National College of Ireland.
The college has plans to expand in the north of the docklands, with a new facility that would provide NCI with some much-needed space. Though it’s still early days, a concept plan has been formed and the college wants to keep the council on-side.
It would give the local community access to a space and facilities for education and training, enterprise, employment, arts, heritage, sport and recreation, says Phillip Matthews, the president of NCI.
“Essentially we see the need for NCI to play an even greater role as a catalyst for a more integrated approach to community development and regeneration within the Dublin docklands,” said Matthews.
He said there will be more consultation with community groups and stakeholders before plans are made public. We expect the college will continue to pop up on the lobbying register over the next year.